by Jason Whyte
Greensboro at SxSW 2007
THE PITCH: Greensboro: Closer to the Truth has its roots in the killing of five Communists by the Ku Klux Klan in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1979. The film reconnects with the participants 25 years later —widowed and wounded survivors, along with their attackers—and chronicles how their lives have evolved in the long aftermath of the killings. All converge when the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission ever held in the United States is convened in Greensboro from 2004-2006.
Is this your first film in SxSW? Do you have any other festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favourite and least-favourite parts of the festival experience.
This is the first film I’ve independently produced and directed, and I’m just now beginning its festival run. I really look forward to screening it in public. I’ve never been to SXSW, but have been to Sundance a number of times, and loved everything about it, particularly meeting other documentary filmmakers.
Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?
I studied filmmaking and studio art in college, and ended up making personal, what used to be called experimental, films in New York for about 10 years. The drive to make a living eventually led me to video editing – commercials, music videos, television shows – and through that I discovered documentaries, which I had not previously been particularly interested in. I’ve edited documentaries (historical, verite, theatrical) for about a dozen years, and have now made my own first film.
Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please!
I suppose I wanted to be a baseball player. As a teenager (a hippie), I didn’t get interested in film until I came upon it in college.
While you were making the movie, were you thinking about the future release of the film, be it film festivals, paying customers, critical response, and so forth?
Because I slowly, over four years, raised sufficient money to make the film, I didn’t have to try and sell it to television ahead of time. For better or worse, I didn’t give the film’s eventual release much thought. But be it television or theatrical or festivals, I was very conscious, as with all the films I work on, of wanting to make a film that would have impact for people who knew nothing about this event or these characters. I’ve never been interested in making a special interest film for insiders. It has to be able to engage people who come to it blind, to connect with the widest possible audience.
How did this project come to fruition? If you could, please provide me with a rundown, start to finish, from your involvement.
In 2002 a filmmaker colleague mentioned there was going to be a truth commission in Greensboro, NC, which would be the first truth commission, held in the U.S. I was familiar with the stories of truth commissions in South Africa, Chile, Argentina, and I thought a film about truth commissions would be compelling. Upon my first trip to Greensboro I found the people involved in the story fascinating, remarkably committed and challenging. At the same time, the larger city of Greensboro seemed largely uninterested in the story. Those two dynamics became the driving force of the film, and it became more character-driven and focused on one particular city.
What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production?
Despite my background as a documentary editor, it was my plan from the beginning to hire an outside editor to bring their own storytelling and structural ideas to the project. But in time it became obvious that hiring an editor was not only financially, but logistically impossible. I wanted and needed to edit footage as the film came together, and of necessity I became the editor. Serving as the film’s producer, director and editor proved very difficult. I had way too much to do, and all the story ideas were coming from just one person. I sought out feedback from other filmmakers by holding formal screenings in the edit room, and, most importantly, hired a friend and colleague and the best editor I know – Richard Hankin – to serve as the film’s Story Editor. Over the last six months of post we’d screen together as each new version came out, towards the end that would be every 3 weeks or so, and that was extraordinarily useful. But I would warn people that editing your own film is very difficult – just as other people warned me!
Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.
The film was shot with a Panasonic DVX 100 in 24p. When I first started shooting in 2003 I didn’t appreciate the advantages of shooting in 16x9, so it started and remained 4x3 format. Considering all the poor quality archival footage to integrate that may have been the right choice. As the film’s funding came together gradually, the initial shoots were sporadic and spread out. I didn’t “hire” a DP, I had to find cameramen whose schedule worked with my own breaks from editing other projects. But a year into the process I came upon Scott Anger, who was a joy to work with. Not only was Scott extraordinarily devoted and committed to the story, but his look and style was very akin to mine, and his shooting really lent itself to my cutting, and vice versa. At the same time, schedules being what they are, I did work with seven different cameramen (not counting my own shooting), and I learned a lot from all their different approaches.
Talk a bit about the festival experiences, if any, that you have had with this particular film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings? (This can also apply to non-festival or even public screenings as well, if you have had one.)
The film will be premiering at SXSW.
Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?
One of the advantages to being an editor is I get to work with a lot of different and talented directors. I’ve worked with Rory Kennedy, Barbara Kopple, Ken Burns, Sydney Pollack, Davis Lacy, Michael Kantor and many others, and have learned a great deal from each of them. The challenge is that each story—and each means of telling a story--is different, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of applying lessons learned from one film onto another, when they’re not appropriate. Each story has its own needs, and that has to be discovered from the inside out.
How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself directing larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?
In documentaries, the dichotomy may better be seen as independent film or television. There’s crossover, but the two often seem like a stark choice. Of necessity I imagine I will continue to do both.
If you weren’t in this profession, what other career do you think you would be interested in?
Perhaps a painter or an architect.
Do you think that you have “made it” in this profession yet? If you don’t believe so, what do you think would happen for that moment to occur?
It’s incredibly gratifying to have people interested in my film after working on it for years on my own. And I do look forward to sharing it with viewers at festivals, and the other things that may come with it. But the reality in docs is that the day a film is done—you’re back to square one, and have to start all over again. I suppose I feel like I’ve made it in the sense of people taking my work seriously and expressing interest in it, but it is back to the drawing board.
You have been given the go-ahead to make your next movie, but you must include one piece of product placement. Luckily, you get to choose said product placement. What would you choose?
I’d like to shoot a scene at Shea Stadium that plugs the New York Mets. Wim Wenders has a terrific scene in “Alice in the Cities” that was shot at Shea Stadium, though I seriously doubt it was a plug.
How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?
I often think that one of the advantages to making documentaries is bad reviews are rare. There are so many films being made that generally critics don’t seem to want to invest their time panning something, they’ll just skip it. (Check in with me in a few months on that one!) At the same time, I think people are open to seeing docs, but don’t necessarily know about then. If a critic does get behind a documentary it can really raise the film’s profile.
If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose and why?
There’s an ancient Etruscan amphitheatre in Fiesole, an old hilltown outside of Florence, where films are shown outdoors on warm summer evenings. That would be a wonderful place to see Greensboro—or any other film.
Do you have an opinion on the issue of “A Film by (Insert Director Here)” ? Is this something you use? Many people collaborate to make a film yet simultaneously, the director is the final word on the production.
Documentary filmmaking is collaboration, but I’ve been working on this every day for 4 years, and it’s my vision and sense of story that’s up there. So yes, I think it’s very appropriate.
What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local twenty-screen megaplex?
Greensboro is a film about real people undergoing extraordinary transformations. I’m not sure fictional storytelling can ultimately top that.
No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?
Pick your story well. Documentaries take a great deal of time to bring to fruition; if it’s something you’re passionate about that energy will come through.
And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?
I could credibly answer this with many films. What comes to mind today is Jaques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday.
Greensboro will be having its premiere at South By Southwest. Fore more information, click HERE. And check out BSide.com for even more info!
-- Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com --
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2113
originally posted: 02/25/07 19:16:51
last updated: 03/07/07 09:14:22